BalletX dancer Caili Quan had long dreamed of choreographing a piece that would honor Guam, where she grew up. When company artistic director Christine Cox commissioned the project for Quan’s retirement performance this summer, it was the perfect parting gift. Then the pandemic took it away.
Quan, 32, is naturally resilient — she’d attended two open calls for BalletX before being invited to re-audition and join the company in 2013. Still, she faced moments of existential panic when lockdown started. She wondered, “Where is my life going? What will happen to dance?”
She took solace in words from a friend, “Life doesn’t stop, so art shouldn’t either.”
BalletX eventually pivoted to an online season. The summer performances would instead become films for BalletX Beyond, the company’s virtual subscription series. The new online platform that will host the series launches Sept. 10 at balletx.org/beyond with previews, behind-the-scenes features, and other material. The first performance is Sept. 23.
Quan held onto her original idea of what she called “a love letter to Guam.” She had spent months searching for the right music and had curated an island-inspired soundtrack that included songs from Harry Belafonte and Guam-born musician Micah Manaitai. She was also set on presenting strong women characters to celebrate the matriarchal values that have persisted since Guam’s precolonial times.
Unable to meet in person, Quan and the BalletX dancers started Zoom rehearsals in June for the piece, titled Love Letter. She called the process “a steep learning curve.”
Zoom flattens three-dimensional movements, and image latency obscures the choreography’s timing with the music. Even determining whether a move happens with the left or right side of the body becomes tricky because the dancers have to reverse what they see on screen. Finding enough space to dance is another obstacle, as is figuring out where to position the camera so that the full body remains in frame.
Working from her living room in New York City, where she now lives with her husband, Quan has hit her face and collided with her couch and walls. She once had to balance her phone between two cans of Spam.
After rehearsing the dancers in confinement, Quan chose to film together outdoors and socially distanced, which introduced a new set of challenges. The film’s cinematographer, Elliot deBruyn, explained that the filming locations needed to be wide enough to allow the dancers to remain six feet apart but also long enough for the camera to capture the expanded formations.
One scene was filmed on the beach in Sea Isle City. Unable to bring a large speaker onto the sand, Quan had to hold a small Bluetooth one as close to dancer Francesca Forcella as possible without getting in the shot. With Hurricane Isaias approaching the coast, wind and waves thundered through the set. “Honestly, there were times I couldn’t hear the music at all,” Forcella said.
"We had a bunch of curve balls,” deBruyn acknowledged.
But while creating physical art in a socially distanced world had its challenges, Quan said, “In a weird way, it helped.”
Her dance film centers on the feeling of “mahålang,” a Chamorro word that she defined as “to yearn, to long for, or to miss something, someone, or some place … [in a way that is] both happy and sad.” The closest English word might be nostalgia, but Quan explained that mahålang is more visceral and heartfelt than that.
While Quan originally envisioned her work to convey mahålang for Guam, “it became mahålang for everything,” she said. “It’s what we’re all going through right now — missing family, missing friends, missing what we had before the pandemic.”
Quan didn’t get a final onstage performance but creating her film made up for it. “Never in my whole life did I think I’d make a 15-minute dance film,” she said. “Getting to make one with the BalletX family was an incredible way to retire.”
After viewing early drafts of Quan’s film, Cox was blown away. “I was concerned that dance would not be able to penetrate like it can in a live performance,” she said. “But I was lifted. Her film is going to surprise and delight the audience.”
The film will be released through BalletX Beyond on Sept. 23. Also screening that day will be videos of Quan’s final performances as a BalletX dancer in work by Penny Saunders and Rena Butler.
Now that she’s retired from performing, Quan plans to work full-time as a choreographer.
She first expressed her interest in choreography to Cox three years ago, and soon began creating small pieces for BalletX pop-up performances. “Christine has been a huge support,” she said.
“Caili created a duet that I just fell in love with, and I saw the beginning of her next big career move,” Cox said. “She’s incredibly musical, inventive, and creative with a great sense of space and time, and she is not afraid to entertain an audience.”
Gradually Quan’s desire to choreograph outgrew her desire to dance. She also knew she wasn’t built for a decades-long performance career. “I’ve been pushing to keep up physically for a while,” she said. “I knew I wanted to finish off strong and retire.”
Since concluding filming with BalletX, Quan has started Zoom rehearsals for her next project, a video with Kansas City’s Owen/Cox Dance Group. “We’re very fortunate she has this experience under her belt as we move into this process,” artistic director Jennifer Owen said.
Looking ahead, she yearns for the chance to experience live dance on stage again. “I do think there’s going to be a huge surge in creativity after everything opens,” she said. “It might be too much — an overload of emotions, physicality, and heart. I totally look forward to it.”
The BalletX Beyond platform launches Sept. 10, with previews, a documentary, and other features. A $180 subscription includes access to four programs of world premieres, with additional digital features and dance films. You can also subscribe by the month for $15 a month.